The season of biopic is upon us as Pawn Sacrifice is the third film in past two weeks that has concentrated on a real life story. Pawn Sacrifice is a movie about the real life story of Bobby Fischer and his rise from a child prodigy to a chess legend. Tobey Maguire is an unconventional casting as Fischer but grows onto the audience as he delivers one of his strongest performance. Maguire is riveting in portraying the ever abrasive and prejudicial Fischer. Fischer is unquestionably a genius but a very difficult person to like and get along with, which Maguire gets across brilliantly. The movie is set during Cold War era presents a fine view of the link between the genius of Fischer and his mental illness.
Pawn Sacrifice opens with the most unflattering shot of Fischer as he tears through his room trying to find the bugs he is sure are hidden by everyone out there get him especially the Soviets. Though in a rather formulaic manner the screenplay by Steven Knight follows the standard formula and uses the tense moments before the big match to hook the viewer before going into a flash back to show how we got there. The first half of the movie gives a sketch of Fischer’s youth focusing on few small incidents especially maternal troubles which hint towards future paranoia. Sadly though there was more to Fischer than just his paranoia instead the viewer is often left thinking if Fischer will hold his paranoia at bay long enough to become the world champion. Though it does a effective job of setting up the scenario of Cold War era and political scenario around it, the FBI and how Fischer has become the standard bearer of American prestige.
Chess was a game that the Soviets dominated and we are treated to montages and sequences of Fischer at various competitions against the Soviets. The World Championship with Soviet Chess legend Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber) and Fischer in Iceland is the focus of the second half. Fischer is aided in his quest to become the world champion by a shadowy government lawyer (Michael Stuhlbarg) and former chess opponent turn confidante Father Bill Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard) who have the impossible task of maneuvering through Fischer’s paranoia and keeping him sane enough to become the World Champion. Schreiber gives in a worthy performance in his portrayal of Spassky and steals the scene when he believes his chair is tampered with. He delivers a characterization of Russians that transcends the cliched stoic and determined individual that Russians are portrayed in majority of the movies.
Fischer is unquestionably a genius but a very difficult person to like and get along with, which Maguire gets across brilliantly.
Pawn Sacrifice is presented in documentary drama style with continuous inter-cutting between footage that are treated to show the grainy TV footage of that era and increasingly quick and scattered editing that reflects the mental state of Fischer. An overuse of narrating the story through news footage from across the world makes it tiring and misses the beat. It works sometimes but more often than not the effort to emulate old footage with its color distortion and soft focus is distracting. A notable mention is the splicing of Tobey’s Fischer into an actual interview Fischer did with Dick Cavett. Director Edward Zwick has the undesirable task of showcasing a boring and cerebral game of Chess cinematically in Pawn Sacrifice but does have the most intriguing material in his hand.
Chess lovers would be disappointed to see the movie showing the chess games in obtuse and quick shots which hardly give any sort of idea of the game being played. The game of the century between Fischer and Spassky could have provided some really tense moments but sadly the film has a disappointing endgame and misses out on a magical moment. Any ardent chess fan watching this movie would be disappointed in the portrayal of Fischer as the movie focuses more on his paranoia and anti-semitic views (Fischer himself is a jew). Viewers’ will be frustrated by the movie as Zwick sets up the movie beautifully but fails to deliver on the endgame and does not go for the kill. The movie is partly about Fischer and fails to identify itself. Pawn Sacrifice is neither a Chess movie neither a biopic nor a documentary. Sadly it turns out to be a one dimensional dramatization aimed at appeasing all. However the movie does a wonderful job in showcasing that Fischer’s true nemesis were not the Soviets or Spassky but himself.